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article imageLeopoldo Lopez: Venezuela blue-blood, ardent Maduro foe

By Patricia Clarembaux (AFP)     Feb 18, 2014 in World

Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard-trained politician and ardent opponent of Venezuela's socialist government, is seen by enemies and supporters alike as the face of recent street protests against the regime.

Lopez clasped the hand of his wife Lilian Tintori and exchanged a few quiet words with her before turning himself in to authorities at a tumultuous rally in Caracas.

A former mayor of the wealthy Chacao borough of Caracas, Lopez had been targeted as public enemy number one by the government, as it hit back against the latest round of high-stakes protests held on Tuesday.

President Nicolas Maduro ordered Lopez's arrest on charges of homicide and inciting violence, holding him responsible for tumultuous street clashes in Caracas last week that left three people dead.

Lopez,for his part, said he was turning himself in after several days as a fugitive from authorities in a gesture of sacrifice for the public good.

"If my incarceration serves to wake up a people... my infamous incarceration will have been worth it," said the 42-year-old Harvard-educated economist, minutes before surrendering to the National Guard.

Blessed with matinee-idol good looks and an easy smile, Lopez has a strong following in parts of Venezuela, winning his past elections by comfortable, and even overwhelming margins.

He has a long history of activism in the country's anti-socialist opposition, having been at the forefront of demonstrations in April 2002 that led to a coup that briefly ousted then-President Hugo Chavez.

A child of privilege, Lopez received a good deal of his education in the United States.

He attended the fancy Hun prep school in Princeton, New Jersey before enrolling at Ohio's elite Kenyon College.

He went on to get his master's degree at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The political blue-blood is said to trace his lineage to the country's first president Cristobal Mendoza. He reportedly also boasts blood lines to nineteenth century South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Brash, ambitious, now jailed

Lopez is considered brash and ambitious -- dangerous attributes for his foe Maduro, 51, Chavez's handpicked successor, who is deemed by many Venezuelans to be somewhat charisma-challenged.

Supporters of Leopoldo Lopez light fires outside La Carlota military base  where he was taken after ...
Supporters of Leopoldo Lopez light fires outside La Carlota military base, where he was taken after turning himself in, on February 18, 2014, in Caracas
Raul Arboleda, AFP

The Maduro government is grappling with angry student protests orchestrated at least in part by Lopez that began in the interior of the oil-rich country and boiled over into last week's street clashes in Caracas.

Lopez's staunch opposition to the government dates back to the regime of late firebrand president Hugo Chavez, who in 2011 barred him from holding political office for three years.

It was the second period of political banishment for Lopez: The government also accused him of influence peddling while working in 1998 as a manager at the Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) state oil company, and in 2008 barred him from holding public office for one year.

Lopez served two terms as mayor of Chacao from 2000 to 2008. During that time he was dogged by allegations that he had misappropriated public funds. He has rejected all of the charges against him as political persecution by the Chavez regime.

After being expelled as leader of the "Un Nuevo Tiempo" party ("A New Time") which he had joined in 2007, Lopez in 2009 created his center-right "Voluntad Popular" or "People's Will" party.

The party has been front and center in leading the demonstrations that have roiled Venezuela, which has been deeply divided in the aftermath of Chavez's death and Maduro's unsteady stewardship of the economy.

The demonstrations have sprung up amid growing public discontent over rising crime and a worsening economy, despite Venezuela having the world's biggest proven oil reserves.

Maduro has accused "right wing fascists" -- of whom he considers Lopez the ringleader -- for the recent unrest.

Lopez and two other opposition leaders -- deputy Maria Corina Machado and the mayor of metropolitan Caracas, Antonio Ledezma -- advocate using street protests to force Maduro from office.

The strategy, which they dub "the way out," is controversial even within the opposition.

But the country's other leading opposition figure, Henrique Capriles -- a candidate in Venezuela's last two presidential elections -- although equally opposed to Maduro, has warned that conditions are yet not ripe for a change of government.

The protests flared on February 4, when students at a university in the western state of Tachira staged a demonstration against rampant crime after a student was raped.

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